Billy Kelly often signs his e-mails and newsletters, "Billy Kelly, Actual Person." I think it's just a jibe at the tendency for impersonal and robotic e-mails, but if the robots' e-mails and newsletters were as amusing and perceptive as Kelly's, then I for one would welcome our new robot overlords.
Kelly's fourth album for kids, AGAIN!!!, is a deft blend of the sincere and absurd ("sinburd?" "abscere?"), a great kindie treat. Kelly recently responded to some questions via e-mail. Read on for his views on when something is too over the top, the purpose of cover songs, and the relative importance of kids music to wrapping the George Washington bridge in cellophane.
Also: you can stream an unreleased track from Kelly below. One with a ROBOT MIX. (Maybe I shouldn't actually believe him when Kelly says he's an actual person, hm?)
Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Billy Kelly: I remember taking a wicked sax solo in the delivery room a few minutes after I was born, but for the life of me I cannot remember what song we were playing. Great groove; that much I recall!
Exactly how many different musical projects are you a part of?
It's hard to say exactly, but it's certainly at least 3 musical projects, and perhaps as many as 3.25. In addition to recording and performing for kids & families with "Billy Kelly & The Blahblahblahs", I play banjo and sing in an alt-country band called "Earl Pickens & Family". I also play guitar and sing in a roots-rock/Americana band called The Sweetbriars. I have reason to believe my left leg is in an all-leg band called "LëG" but as yet I cannot prove this. Anyway, that's where the .25 I alluded to comes from.
What made you decide to write (and record) music for families?
When you're writing songs for families, how do you balance your sense of humor and earnestness in choosing what to record? Do you ever write a song and think, "that's way too ironic [or earnest] for my audience?"
This is a constant debate for me. I like the spot I claimed for myself in the kindie universe with my first album Thank You For Joining The Happy Club — as kind of an absurdist musical Seinfeld for kids. The "Seinfeld for kids" thing was mentioned in one of the first reviews that came in for Happy Club, but I had already been alluding to Seinfeld while we were recording. I kept telling people in the studio that my album was going to be "Jerry Seinfeld, not Jerry Lewis." So I was glad to see that my intention came across to others that way when the reviews came in.
The drawback to the whole "I am completely absurd and I have no sincere sentiment to impart" thing, as I found out, is that unsuspecting audiences don't know what to make of you. People were bringing their kids out to hear a nice family show, but they often ended up scratching their heads wondering what was going on. Happy Club had some moments of sincerity on it, but I really started running with the absurdist football in my live shows. ("Absurdist Football" is a great name for a band btw.)
I went in 100% on the absurd vibe for my second disc, but ultimately felt that it wasn't entirely me when I played the songs live. I had cut the sentimental stuff from the live set entirely I was performing AT people more than I was performing FOR them. It was an interesting experiment, but not personally rewarding — 10-minute-long live versions of "The Ballad of Johnny Box" notwithstanding.
My third album The Family Garden swung heavily towards sincerity, and since then I've been more comfortable allowing that side of me to show through in my songs. The new disc is the first one I've done where I feel that sincerity and absurdism are given their due in parts more or less proportionate to my personality. I enjoy relaying the odd thoughts that occur to me in song, but I really do want to connect with the kids & parents on a personal level.
Have you ever recorded something and thought, "no, that's too over the top, even for me?" -- after all you wrote a rockin' song in honor of bonsai, an ode to butter, and an epic song in honor of a box, so that bar, if it exists, seems somewhat high.
Often it goes the other way, where I decide a song isn't weird enough. I only recall rejecting a song for being TOO weird one time. There was a song I recorded for AGAIN!!! called "Might it Be Love?", but it took some strange turns in the studio that rendered it unusable. We recorded the backing tracks in a key that was too high for me to sing in my normal voice so I tried singing it an octave lower. My voice ended up sounding like the robot from "Lost In Space" so we started adding these totally incongruous outer space sounds to the track. Laser beams, explosions, "DESTROY THE HUMAN!" voiceovers and stuff like that. It made sense to me because I was watching the music video in my head — space commander and his brilliant female assistant, who is secretly in love with him, explore a hostile alien robot world — but I realized to people who lacked access to the TV screen in my brain it was just total weirdness. I ended up dropping the track from the album because it was too over the top, as you said.
Here's "Might It Be Love" — perfectly preserved at the exact moment when I abandoned it...
The falsetto voice was going to be sung by a female vocalist. There was also a wedding-march theme at the end, which you can sort of hear on the guitar in this mix. I had a narrated introduction planned — something along the lines of "When we last joined our heroes, Captain Strong-Good and his brilliant copilot, Lieutenant Dr. Smartz, they had safely landed on planet XPL-MNOJ-7. But DANGER loomed outside their spacecraft as they prepared to explore the hostile, alien world..." and so on. They escape on their spaceship at the end. Too much, even for me. Also: Why?
To be fair, while all of this was going on, my "Ode to Butter" song was called "Theme from Butter! The Musical" and I was considering recording it with the local high school musical theater department. So there was a lot of "idea down-sizing" going on at that point.
What's your criteria for picking cover songs ("Don't Worry 'Bout the Government," "Mr. Blue Sky")? What song would you have given your right (or left) arm to have written?
I like well known "grown up" songs that blend in perfectly on a children's album. Not the obvious ones like "Yellow Submarine" or "Octopus's Garden" but the songs that people don't realize are kids music in disguise. "Our House" by Madness, "Rock Lobster" by B52's, "Mr. Blue Sky" by ELO etc. I enjoy the shift in perception that takes place when you present these songs to an audience of kids and adults. Adults hear this song that they know so well, and suddenly find it cast in a different light while the kids, who have probably never even heard the song before, are accepting it at face value... He DOES see the clouds that move across the sky! He DOES see the wind that moves the clouds away! Of course he does.
In turn, I like how placing these songs in a new context alongside my original songs challenges the listener to think of what I do as more than generic "kids music." If that Talking Heads song blends in well, then all the other songs benefit by association.
Like most musical artists, I find cover songs useful but I have a strict rule about only playing covers that are very well known. I don't do obscure B-sides or unreleased tracks. The cover songs are there to re-capture people's attention and to prop up my own songs by showing them hanging out in good company. Plus I like to put my own spin on cover songs — changing them in a way that makes them mine.
Are you an artist who also makes music, a musician who also makes art? Or just a Renaissance man generally?
"Renaissance Man" is too often substituted for "jack of all trades, master of none", but in this case the substitution is apropos. Life is short and I want to try as many different things as I can, so "Jack of all trades etc." is fine with me. I'm always turning my attention to some new project but this, and coffee, is what keeps me going. This is why I have a manager — I need someone to remind me of things I've started in earnest that deserve to be completed. Otherwise I'd be on a new project every week.
As to the whole artist/musician thing, I went to art school (Cooper Union, NYC) and I thought of myself as a visual artist for the first 25 years or so of my life. My 'visual arts' brain was rewired to serve as a musical brain at some point, but I still consider what I do to be Art, capital A. I believe that if you create something with the goal of making the world a better or even simply a more interesting place then it qualifies as Art. I'm proud to be creating art for family-consumption and I think it's as valid and important as painting a portrait or choreographing a ballet or wrapping the George Washington bridge in cellophane.
What's next for Billy Kelly, Actual Person?
I have a bunch of music videos I want to make and I've been writing a collection of songs about trees for an album to be called, you guessed it, Trees. "Bonsai" (from my new CD) was yanked from Trees because I just couldn't wait to get that particular song out into the world. My plan is to keep writing the Trees album, rehearse the heck out of it with my band and maybe head up to Dean Jones' "No Parking Studio" for a few days and record it there.
Lots of shows on the road are being planned as well. Really the best part of the job — visiting new places, seeing new sights, meeting new people and trying to make them smile, dance and laugh.
I also have plans to type a period at the end of this sentence and send these interview answers to you.
Photo credit: BK with guitar, Johnny Box photos by Amy Hsu Lin.